Organizations May 3, 2021
Why Highly Esteemed Leaders Are Surprisingly Likely to Fumble Their Next Project
Organizations should be leery of putting high-status leaders beyond scrutiny.
When it comes to leading a successful project, sometimes having too much status can be a bad thing.
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Take, for example, video-game producer George Brussard, who in 1997 announced plans for a new game, Duke Nukem Forever. Expectations were high: Brussard’s previous title, Duke Nukem 3D, was one of the top-selling video games of all time, beloved by critics and players alike.
But instead of another smash hit, Duke Nukem Forever became a legendary boondoggle, released more than a decade late to lackluster reviews and fan response. What went wrong?
It may seem shocking when an iconic leader like Brussard swings and misses, but it’s not uncommon, according to research from Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. In a new study of the video-game industry, King and his coauthors— Balazs Szatmari of the University of Amsterdam, and Dirk Deichmann and Jan van den Ende of Erasmus University—found that a leader’s high status among their peers doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome for the projects they lead. Indeed, it can often be a liability.
Leaders with high status, the research revealed, are prone to extremes—big successes or big flops—while moderate status is associated with the highest average level of project performance.
Why? With status comes everything a leader needs for a project to succeed: resources, support, the faith of executives and team members. But there is peril, too: high-status project leaders are often overburdened. And precisely because of their status, the people around them may not offer honest feedback.
“We tend to be too deferential to people who we consider to be higher status. And where we give deference, what we should be doing is increasing our scrutiny—or at least, scrutinize them as much as we do people of lower status,” King says. “There is greater potential for them to let their egos take control and produce something that sounds good to them but that is in reality a terrible idea.”
Game On: Testing Status and Performance
The researchers focused their study on the video-game industry—a useful testbed because of the large quantity of games released each year to an audience of vocal, engaged fans. But, says King, “I don’t think these findings are just characteristic or a dynamic specific to the video-game industry.” Any field where leaders can attain status is subject to the same set of forces.
To begin, the researchers assembled a database of 745 games produced by leading companies between 2008 and 2012, for which full information about the development team was publicly available. They winnowed that list down to games with a single producer who was not a first-time producer, leading to a final sample of 349 titles. Data on performance came from the popular MobyGames database, which aggregates critic and user reviews.
When people are put in charge, there’s “a double whammy.” Egos can swell at the same time as those around us stop telling us the
To assess producers’ status, the researchers used their “network positions”—a statistical measure based on patterns of who has collaborated with whom within an organization. The idea, Szatmari explains, is that people who are well-connected tend to be the best-regarded.
“If you enter in a room and you see someone surrounded by many people, you think, ‘Oh, that person must know something.’ There’s a reason why people are around them,” he explains. “If many people want to work with you or seek your advice, that’s a sign of competence.”
Then, the researchers analyzed the relationship between producer status and game performance—controlling for a variety of factors that might affect success, such as year of release, team size, and whether the game broke technological or conceptual ground and involved greater risk.
When Too Much Status Can Be a Bad Thing
What they discovered was an inverted U-shaped relationship between producer status and average game performance. In other words, having status helped—until it didn’t. Middle-status producers had the best average performance, while high-status and low-status producers fared about the same.
However, while high-status and low-status producers had similar average performance scores, in the case of high-status producers, that stemmed from extreme variation in performance. Some had wild successes and others abject failures, resulting in an average comparable to low-status producers.
These patterns were reflected in observations from industry insiders, whose comments offered a qualitative complement to the researchers’ statistical analysis—and Szatmari says, “helped shed light on some of the causal explanations for what was going on.”
For instance, the researchers suspected that high-status producers’ tendency to flounder stemmed from being overwhelmed because, given their reputation, everyone wanted some of their time.
One producer put it this way: “I can certainly notice that as my status grows, my productivity goes down. When people are not absolutely clear, I start to miss the signals […] until somebody says something like, ‘I need help!’ In the past, I had more time for processing the information, but now, if somebody doesn’t scream then I don’t see the problem.”
Another insider confirmed that executives’ faith in high-status producers can lead them to ignore serious problems in a project. Once, the insider said, a legendary producer sold company owners on a game that many employees questioned. It quickly spiraled out of control, but the owners didn’t see it, despite employees’ repeated attempts to raise concerns.
As for the high success rate of intermediate-status producers, King believes it’s partly attributable to career phase. People with moderate status are likely to be mid-career, a time when they are trusted but still hungry. They’ve attained “enough status and recognition that now people are willing to put resources behind them, but they’re also still striving to reach the top”—and aren’t yet surrounded by yes-men. This combination of ingredients, he believes, accounts for their success.
Why Companies Should Scrutinize Their Stars
It’s easy for companies to assume their most well-regarded leaders have things under control—after all, they got that positive reputation for a reason. But King says it’s essential for executives to pay extra attention to stars when they are leading important projects.
When people are put in charge, there’s “a double whammy,” King says: our egos can swell at the same time as those around us stop telling us the truth, “so they’re constantly giving us feedback that we’re always right.”
So he has a word of advice for anyone taking charge of a project: “Be aware of this potential in yourself.” Learning to accept negative feedback isn’t easy, but it can save you from a disaster.
“People only give us the feedback they perceive we’re comfortable taking,” King says. “And if we’re not open to being told ‘no,’ when we’re in a high-status position, people probably won’t tell us ‘no’ enough.”
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Szatmari, Balazs, Dirk Deichmann, Jan Van Den Ende, and Brayden King. 2021. “Great Successes and Great Failures: The Impact of Project Leader Status on Project Performance and Performance Extremeness.” Journal of Management Studies.
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